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Friday December 3rd

UNC Journalism School moves forward after Monty Cook resignation

	<p>Former lecturer Monty Cook resigned from his post in November. </p>
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Former lecturer Monty Cook resigned from his post in November.

Before the “inappropriate behavior” with a student that led to his November resignation, Monty Cook had everything the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication was looking for.

Appearing at his alma mater in September 2009 and again in the spring, he left an impression with faculty, proving himself an innovator poised to “shake things up” and enact cutting-edge measures necessary to breathe life into a struggling journalism industry.

But Andy Bechtel had concerns.

An editing professor in the school, Bechtel said he questioned the cuts Cook oversaw as senior vice president and editor of The Baltimore Sun. Having worked as a copy editor for the (Raleigh) News & Observer before joining the UNC’s faculty, Bechtel wondered if Cook’s targeting of copy editors in those layoffs reflected a lack of value for the editing process.

And so, Bechtel asked some tough questions during Cook’s on-campus interview for executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital News Project.

“He answered those questions to my satisfaction, saying that it was not his choice to do that,” Bechtel said.

But because of hiring legislation and common decency, Bechtel and other search committee members said they could not have delved into Cook’s personal life even if they wanted to. And a review of Cook’s references, both on- and off-résumé, left no cause for concern regarding his non-professional life and no warning for sexually explicit text messages that warranted a two-week leave and a recommendation from Jean Folkerts, the school’s dean, for his termination.

“As it turned out, he had some extra baggage that came along with that that we weren’t aware of,” said professor Charlie Tuggle, a search committee member. “In retrospect, do I wish we had a redo? Sure.”

In a 911 call obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, the Duke University professor who reported the “suspicious condition” at Carroll Hall that brought the scandal to light indicates that a Duke student aimed to confront Cook.

The professor identifies the Duke student listed in the Nov. 12 Department of Public Safety incident report as the boyfriend of Cook’s student employee, who is identified as the “victim of a power relationship.”

A red flag

If any warning arose, it was an unsigned e-mail addressed to 25 faculty on May 31.

An anonymous author claimed his wife had an affair with Cook, offering an explicit Gmail chat as proof.

It raised a red flag for some. And it “hit home” for Bechtel, who said he was going through a divorce at the time.

“I’m still glad that we hired you, and I think that you are a good person,” Bechtel wrote to Cook.

He said Cook never responded.

But Bechtel delivered a monition as well, answering the plea in the e-mail for the faculty to encourage Cook, who is married with children, to avoid extramarital relationships.

“I don’t know the details of your situation,” he added, “but I hope that all involved can step back and re-establish the boundaries that are necessary for marriages to survive.”

Folkerts said she contacted the University General Counsel in response to the e-mail. But journalism professor and search committee member Leroy Towns said the e-mail was ultimately dismissed as a personal matter.

“When you sit back and look at it, what do you do with that?” Towns said. “If everybody at UNC who had an affair were fired, I’m sure that we would be short of faculty, staff and administration.”

The seven-member committee charged with recommending a candidate to the faculty selected Cook unanimously. Before Cook formally joined the faculty on April 1, faculty approved the recommendation by a vote of 29-6, with two abstaining.

Moving forward

In the aftermath of Cook’s resignation, the journalism school decided not to offer the News Desk class that was linked to reesenews.org and taught by Cook. Don Wittekind, the chairman of the search committee that led to Cook’s hiring, stepped into Cook’s role as executive producer of the website, which is funded through a $4.1 million grant, the largest in the school’s 101-year history, from the estate of alumnus Reese Felts.

Rebecca Putterman, the website’s managing editor, said Cook’s resignation was a brief distraction that the staff has since overcome.

“After a couple of days of decompressing and working together getting past it, we were able to move on pretty quickly,” she said. “We had a content plan that didn’t change. Our deadlines didn’t change.

“We got back to our work.”

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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